In the very early run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton is so ahead of the rest of her presumed competitors for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination that it felt more like watching someone out for a jog than anything like a race.
That is until this week, when Hillary ran into the first possibly serious roadblock on the path to a second Clinton presidency. On Monday, the New York Times reported that Clinton had, in defiance of State Department regulations, exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business during her time as Secretary of State. To make matters worse, she had been doing so by way of what the Associated Press referred to as "home brew" servers run out of the Clintons' compound in Chappaqua, New York—not exactly Pentagon-level security. Was it illegal? Maybe. Could it actually stall Clinton's all-but-inevitable stroll to the general election, though? Well, let's discuss.
It's hard to overstate just how large Clinton's 2016 lead has been in the run up to her official campaign announcement. Real Clear Politics, which aggregates many of the leading opinion-poll results, had Clinton's advantage over her opponents at a staggering 44-point average from January 18 to March 2—the day the news about the emails came out.
Her advantage is even greater thanks to the fact that her two closest rivals have given little indication that they actually plan to run in 2016. In second place, behind Clinton's 58.8 percent, Vice President Joe Biden is polling at an average 12.8 percent. When asked about 2016, Biden said in January "there's a chance" he'll challenge Clinton. But at 72 years old, Biden would be the oldest person ever elected president by a significant margin, were he to win the White House.
Unsurprisingly, Biden has so far stayed quiet about the email controversey. But Biden backers have seized on the news of Clinton's misstep, albeit clumsily, as you might expect from Biden backers. Leading South Carolina Democrat Dick Harpootlian told the Washington Post that the emails will mean Clinton will "die by 1,000 cuts," before slipping into a little casual misogyny with, "If the e-mails were just her and her family and friends canoodling about fashion and what they're going to do next week, that's one thing."
But Biden's lukewarm comments about running are far stronger than those of the third-highest-polling Democrat, though. At 12.4 percent, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren continues to attract passionate support for a presidential bid, inspiring a Run Warren Run movement among lefty activists and Hollywood celebrities. But the Senator herself continues to repeatedly and emphatically deny she has any interest in staging a campaign.
That leaves three men who have expressed explicit interest in a 2016 run—even going so far as to drop in on early-primary states to show they are serious—as the main individuals who could capitalize on Clinton's stumbles. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described "democratic socialist" from Vermont, Jim Webb, a former one-term senator from Virginia, and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley are each polling in the low single-digits in early 2016 surveys, with very little name recognition or national profile to speak of at this point. Sanders and O'Malley have positioned themselves to the left of Clinton, Webb to the right.
For any of them to actually pose a threat to Clinton's near-stranglehold on the nomination, it would take far more than just a scandal on her part: They'd need to somehow insert themselves into the minds of voters, and prove they are actually credible candidates for leader of the free world. Perhaps tellingly, all three have stayed silent on this week's email revelations; Sanders basically assaulted reporters who dared ask him for his take on the scandal, and the others have so far declined to comment.
Their silence–compounded with the fact that none of the three has managed to make a serious case for why they should be president—suggests what everyone has long assumed: that Clinton will face only a perfunctory primary challenge, from politicians looking for a boost in book sales, or a possible Cabinet appointment.
Still, assume, just for fun, that the Clinton scandals went so nuclear they actually forced Hillary out of the race. In that case, after an initial, and likely prolonged, panic, other Democrats would presumably start coming out of the woodwork. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, for example, has said she won't challenge Clinton if Clinton runs, but has also firmly declared that she wants to see a woman elected president. If that woman isn't Hillary—well, then it has to be another woman, doesn't it? And what better woman than Senator Kirsten Gillibrand?
There's also New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was once thought to harbor presidential ambitions. But Cuomo hasn't made any moves for 2016—and as the New York Times reported Thursday, he has his own email problems to deal with.
If Clinton's nearest challengers are long shots, the real long shots are basically outside the Earth's orbit. Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer made noise last year about making a run, before dropping several pianos on his foot in an interview with the National Journal. Any dreams of a cowboy President in blue probably died when he compared California Senator Dianne Feinstein to a hooker. Other surprise candidates have so far yet to make themselves known, a sign that Clinton's presumed inevitability has crippled the Democrats' bench.
Of course, any conversation about a non-Hillary nominee is so premature, it can be chalked up to fantasy—as of right now, it still doesn't look like the email problem will be more than a bump in the road for her campaign, and the chance that it will become so serious as to actually deter her from running seems preposterously thin. If the worst does come to pass, though, it would mean a major opening for someone. Who that person will be, though, remains the real mystery.
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